Why He’s On Our Radar: Only one day into the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, first-time director Malik Bendjelloul is experiencing a high most filmmakers only dream of. His World Cinema Documentary Competition contender “Searching for Sugar Man,” premiered to rave notices on opening night. The next day, Sony Pictures Classics, making the first buy out of the festival, snatched it up.
It’s not hard to see why his film has people excited. “Searching for Sugar Man” tells the strange-but-true story of Rodriguez, the greatest ‘70s rock icon you never heard of — unless you live in South Africa. The Detroit-based artist was plucked from obscurity by two big-name producers; he recorded an album that was supposed to launch a lucrative recording career. That never happened. But thanks to a bootleg recording that found its way into apartheid South Africa, Rodriguez became an icon for the revolution. Funny thing is, he didn’t have a clue.
Bendjelloul – who helmed a body of short documentaries about a number of musical artists including Bjork, Madonna and Elton John – unlocks the mystery behind the man, uncovering a tale that’s almost too crazy to be believed.
What’s Next: What isn’t? Bendjellouol said he has over four years’ worth of ideas. Which one he’ll tackle next, he doesn’t know. “Maybe I’ll do another documentary, or maybe I’ll do a narrative feature,” he said. “If I do another documentary, the story needs to be as good as this one.”
What are you feeling right now? This is your first film, your first time at Sundance and your film is the first acquisition out of the festival, with a big buyer no less.
Can you please repeat what you just said – that’s what I feel! Is this real, is this really happening? Please repeat it once more, I want to hear it again and again (laughs). This is ridiculous.
You pulled off quite the coup at the premiere by having Rodriguez show after the movie. How long had you been planning his big reveal in Park City?
From the very first day we heard it was accepted, maybe even before that. He was excited to come. For him and his family, this is a beautiful thing. It’s late in life – I mean, he’s 70 years-old – but he’s still very healthy and can still do stuff. It’s not too late… now is his time.
So when did he see the film?
The day that we learned it was accepted into Sundance, I sent it to him. Before that, I hadn’t showed anything to him. You always get concerned when you start thinking about that. I thought it was better to wait.
What was his reaction upon seeing it?
He liked it very much. He was very, very grateful. I think he’s seen it 15 times now.
Yeah, before the festival (laughs).
That’s so interesting, because he’s not the most forthcoming person in your interview. He doesn’t appear to like to talk about himself.
It’s true! I met a few great artists who are famous for their integrity, but he’s in another league. That’s why I love him. His music – he’s nothing else but his music. When you ask him about Sugar Man, he goes, “Yeah, it’s A minor.” He’s his music. What can you add? Those songs are perfect. And that’s why he remains this mystery, because he doesn’t spill out his heart. When you ask him a question, the answer’s exactly what you asked.
So this mystery he’s cultivated around himself, you’re saying it’s not of his own doing.
Exactly. He did this record in the ’70s, I think many people said, “You should do it like this, you should do it like that.” But he did it anyway and the output is flawless because of this integrity. You need this integrity. For me, it was the greatest inspiration. You can maybe make more money if you do it this way, or you can stay true to the way you are.
Take me back to your interview with Rodriguez. Did you get nervous during your chat when you realized he wasn’t that forthcoming on camera?
The thing was, when I spoke to him with the camera off, it was like talking to my best friend. The discussion was more fun. You know, he’s got a creative brain. He’s been a construction worker, so that gives you a lot of time to think – his thoughts are advanced. But then when the camera is on, it’s a different thing because he doesn’t like that.
Now that the film’s picked up, North Americans are hopefully going to learn who he is. How does he feel about possibly becoming a name in his home country?
I can’t actually begin to grasp the fact that this film might change his life. Most of all, I’m happy for those people that will now listen to the album.
Is that part of the reason why you embarked on this project, to bring attention to him? Or was it simply to tell this unbelievable story?
The latter. I heard the story before I heard his music. I remember thinking it was the best story I ever heard – ever. I was afraid to listen to the music!
Who told you the story?
The detective in Capetown who’s featured in the film.
How did you meet him?
I was traveling around Africa looking for good stories. I went there because of the beauty. Randomly, I found this story.
It’s crazy how perfectly tailored this story was for you, given your experience in making music documentaries.
It’s true. My specialty is two things: music or really strange stories.
Where did this fascination with music come from?
I think music is the highest art form. Films can never compete with that. Film is good the first time you see it and maybe you’ll see it again. A good piece of music, you can hear it 100 times or more. It gets inside your life.
What about films about music?
I don’t like music docs, usually. There’s nothing to really say. What can you say about music? Normally, you can’t say too much. There are a few really good ones, but the majorities are boring, I think.
I think music docs could turn off some people. But I don’t think “Sugar Man” is a music doc anymore than “The Social Network” is about computers. This film just happens to have the best soundtrack ever.